Myanmar/Bangladesh: Older people denied dignity in camps after facing military atrocities

– PRESS RELEASE —

By Amnesty International
Jun 18 2019 (IPS-Partners)

Tens of thousands of older women and men from ethnic minorities across Myanmar who faced military atrocities and were forced to flee their homes are being let down by a humanitarian system that often fails to adequately address their rights and needs, Amnesty International said in a report published today.

Fleeing my whole life”: Older people’s experience of conflict and displacement in Myanmar is the organization’s first comprehensive investigation into the specific ways older people’s rights and dignity are not respected amid armed conflict and crisis, as well in the provision of humanitarian assistance.

“For decades, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have suffered recurrent abuse at the hands of the military. Many older people racked by atrocities amid recent military operations lived through similar crimes as children or younger adults. Their experience lays bare the military’s longstanding brutality, and the need for justice,” said Matthew Wells, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.

“Tens of thousands of older women and men are among the more than one million people displaced to camps as a result of conflict and military abuse. The humanitarian community has responded admirably to crisis after crisis, saving many lives. But older people are slipping through the cracks, their specific needs often overlooked. The humanitarian response must become more inclusive.”

The report is based on 146 interviews with older women and men from the Kachin, Lisu, Rakhine, Rohingya, Shan, and Ta’ang ethnic minorities. They were conducted during three missions to Myanmar’s Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan States, as well as to the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, between December 2018 and April 2019. Those interviewed range from 54 to more than 90 years old.

Military crimes against older people
As the Myanmar military has committed atrocity crimes during operations in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, older people confront particular risks. Some older people stay behind as villages empty at word of a military advance, often due to their strong ties to home and land or to being physically unable to flee. After finding them, soldiers arbitrarily detain, torture, and at times kill older women and men.

A 67-year-old ethnic Rakhine farmer who stayed behind when most of his village fled in March 2019, in part because a severe hearing impairment meant he had not heard fighting nearby between the military and Arakan Army (AA), described what Myanmar soldiers did after forcing him out of his home: “When I got to where the captain was, the soldiers tied my hands… behind my back, with the rope that’s used for cattle. They asked me, ‘Did the AA come to the village?’ I said no, I’d never seen [the AA]… and then the soldiers beat me.”

During the military’s attack on the Rohingya population in 2017, many older women and men were burned alive in their homes. Mariam Khatun, an ethnic Rohingya woman around 50 years old, fled to the nearby forest with her three children when Myanmar soldiers entered her village in Maungdaw Township. “My parents were left behind in the home,” she said. “I had two young children, how could I take them as well? … My parents were physically unable to move.”

As she and her children reached the river next to the village, Mariam Khatun looked back and saw the village burning, knowing her parents were still inside their home.

Amnesty International’s review of lists of people killed from different Rohingya villages indicates older people often suffered disproportionately. A quantitative study by Médecins Sans Frontières found similarly, showing that in the month after the military began its brutal operations on 25 August 2017, the highest rates of mortality – by far – were among Rohingya women and men age 50 and older.

For older people in Rakhine and Kachin States who have fled, the journey through Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands was often difficult, worsened by the military blocking main routes and restricting humanitarian access. Amnesty International documented several cases of older people dying as they tried to flee to safety, unable to access health care.

Humanitarian assistance falls short
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have responded to enormous needs in Bangladesh, where more than 900,000 Rohingya live in camps, and in Myanmar, where more than 250,000 people are displaced. Insufficient donor funding and government restrictions in both countries – particularly severe in Myanmar – create further challenges. But, even amid the constraints, the humanitarian system has too often neglected older people.

In the Bangladesh refugee camps, many older Rohingya women and men are unable to regularly access the most basic of services, including sanitation, health care, water, and food. The camps’ congestion and hilly terrain make for a difficult environment, particularly for older people with limited mobility.

Many older Rohingya report being unable to access latrines and having to use a pan in their shelters – a major loss of dignity. Mawlawi Harun, an ethnic Rohingya man in his 90s, said, while sitting in his shelter in Camp #15 in Bangladesh: “I go to the latrine here, I eat and sleep here. I have become like a cow or goat. What more can I say? Cows defecate and urinate in the same place where they eat… Now I’m sleeping in a latrine.”

Older women and men also struggle to access health facilities, due to the distance and terrain. Even when they can, they find some clinics cannot treat even common chronic diseases – such as high blood pressure and chronic respiratory illness – that disproportionately affect older people. Many older people are forced to buy medication from market stalls that should be part of the health response.

Gul Bahar, around 80 years old, said she spends 5,000 taka (US$59) per month on medication, including pills for high blood pressure, as the camp clinic near her generally provides only paracetamol. To pay for her medications, she said, “We sell part of our food ration and cooking oil. We also sold our blankets.”

In northern Myanmar, where many ethnic Kachin have been displaced since 2011, some humanitarian programmes, particularly for livelihood support, under-include older people. Older people also face discrimination in accessing work, which has a cascade of negative effects, compounded by the decrease in humanitarian assistance in recent years, due to donor fatigue and an expectation that people in the IDP camps can access work in surrounding areas.

“I’ve approached the employers and said I want to work,” said Zatan Hkawng Nyoi, a 67-year-old ethnic Kachin woman who spent a lifetime farming before being displaced to an IDP camp. “They said I’m too old, that I won’t be able to walk that far to [the paddy fields].”

Older people in general, and older women in particular, are also under-represented in camp leadership, denying them a voice in decision-making.

“Older people need to be better included in all aspects of humanitarian response – from having their voices inform initial assessments to being involved in assistance programmes. Responding more effectively to older people’s rights begins with engaging their unique skills and perspective,” said Matthew Wells.

Repeated trauma

For many older people from ethnic minorities across Myanmar, the current displacement is the latest in a lifetime of conflict and military oppression. Amnesty International interviewed several dozen older people, including ethnic Kachin, Rohingya, and Shan, who had fled their homes three or more times – often as children, as younger adults, and again in older age. The repeated upheaval has caused economic hardship in addition to psychosocial harm.

“I’ve fled so many times since I was nine years old… I’ve had to be alert all the time. It doesn’t matter what I do – on the farm, in the orchard – I’ve never had peace of mind,” said Nding Htu Bu, 65, a Kachin woman living in an IDP camp.

Some older people have also witnessed one or more of their children being murdered or raped by the Myanmar military.

Yet, despite the acute and chronic harm, very little psychosocial care is targeted at, or even inclusive of, older people.

Amnesty International requested responses from the Bangladesh offices of the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration to questions about the organization’s main findings. Both agencies cited challenges, especially during the early crisis period; the enormous progress in the overall provision of aid; and initiatives that are underway or planned to make assistance more inclusive for older people.

“The improvements in the camps are notable, but, for many older people, they have been much too slow and remain insufficient. Older people’s rights should inform humanitarian response and resourcing from a crisis’s first days, not as an afterthought. Anything else fails to meet core humanitarian principles: respond based on need, and leave no one behind,” said Matthew Wells.

“For their part, donor governments must provide greater support for the response in both Myanmar and Bangladesh and ensure that implementing partners are assessing and meeting older people’s specific needs.”

To download B-roll of original footage from refugee camps in Bangladesh, including GVs of the camps, interviews and GVs with Rohinyga older people, and an interview with report author Matthew Wells, please visit: https://adam.amnesty.org/asset-bank/action/viewAsset?id=263026

To download professional still photography of older refugees in Bangladesh and older internally displaced people in Myanmar, please visit: https://adam.amnesty.org/asset-bank/images/assetbox/8fb00b67-e3c5-44b4-bb18-4bd49dd17f70/assetbox.html

As Sudan Struggles, AU Should Press for Justice and Accountability

On June 6, the African Union (AU) suspended Sudan from the 55-member group with “immediate effect.” The move came in response to a deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum, in which government forces, led by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), tore through a sit-in in the capital killing at least 108 people, and wounding hundreds.

View of the Headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: UN Photo/Antonio Fiorente.

By Carine Kaneza Nantulya
WASHINGTON DC, Jun 18 2019 – On June 6, the African Union (AU) suspended Sudan from the 55-member group with “immediate effect.” The move came in response to a deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum, in which government forces, led by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), tore through a sit-in in the capital killing at least 108 people, and wounding hundreds. The AU’s decisive action has been widely applauded, but suspending Sudan is not enough.

The crackdown came amid stalled negotiations between the Transitional Military Council  (TMC) and opposition groups over formation of a civilian-led government following the April 11 ousting of former president Omar al-Bashir.

The AU had earlier called for a swift transition to civilian rule and threatened the TMC with sanctions if it fails to hand power to a civilian-led government.

To avoid further deterioration of the Sudan crisis, and to mark a shift from the Burundi precedent, the AU should take further measures beyond the suspension of Sudan, including speedily setting up of a commission of inquiry into human rights violations against protesters by government security forces under the control of the military council

These statements underscore the AU’s role in promoting democratic transitions, citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, political participation, and other associated rights. The Transitional Military Council’s blatant disregard of the AU’s initial calls, and of Sudan’s human rights obligations, represent a direct challenge to the authority and influence of the regional body as a critical platform for promoting peace, security and human rights on the continent. It is thus imperative for the AU and its agencies to take further steps to hold the leadership of the TMC accountable.

Sudan, a  signatory to the African Union charter since 1956, is also a party to important regional human rights instruments — notably the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which guarantees the right to peaceful protest, among other things.

On June 7, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which monitors compliance with the human rights charter’s provisions, also called for prompt investigations into the attacks on protesters and urged redress for victims and their families.

But the crisis in Sudan is a stark reminder that the road to full respect for human rights requires much more than agreeing to uphold human rights standards.

The AU has struggled in the recent past to find solutions to human rights situations in member countries and to consistently enforce sanctions. In just one example, In 2015, the AU Peace and Security Council authorized the deployment of a 5,000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi to protect civilians.

The move came after an attack on military installations around the capital, Bujumbura, led security forces to kill scores of civilians. But the Assembly of Heads of State ignored the authorization and later overturned it, leaving the crisis in Burundi unresolved.

To avoid further deterioration of the Sudan crisis, and to mark a shift from the Burundi precedent, the AU should take further measures beyond the suspension of Sudan, including  speedily setting up of a commission of inquiry into human rights violations against protesters by government security forces under the control of the military council.

This could be done in collaboration with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, as provided by Article 19 of the AU Protocol on the Peace and Security Council. It should also consider additional measures such as targeted sanctions against leaders of the military council  implicated in the attacks under Articles 23 and 30 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

The  African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the union’s flagship rights body, has previously carried out fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry in similar situations. Its decisions on these situations have built important principles that could be applied to Sudan.

As the search for a negotiated settlement continues in Sudan, the AU should make accountability for crimes and human rights violations, which underpin the crisis, front and center of its intervention. This would be an important signal of the AU’s increasing commitment to justice and accountability for violations of its norms and values.

 

Desertification ‘More Dangerous and More Insidious than Wars’

Grenada has been spearheading the fight against desertification at local, regional and global levels. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
ANKARA, Jun 18 2019 – Businesses are being encouraged to follow the lead of the youth to halt desertification, reduce degradation, improve agricultural sustainability and restore damaged lands.

“The youth is a very particular case. The youth give me a lot of hope because I see their passion, and I see their vision,” head of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Ibrahim Thiaw told IPS.

“For the youth it’s basically ‘I care for the planet, this is our future.’”

Each minute, 23 hectares of productive land and soil is lost to desertification, land degradation and drought, according to U.N. Environment.

Thiaw said when this happens young people are forced to leave their homeland, and most never return.

He said restoring land will help in reducing risks of irregular migration – a major component of population change in some countries.

According to a new U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Division report launched on Monday, Jun. 17, between 2010 and 2020, 14 countries or areas will see a net inflow of more than one million migrants, while 10 countries will see a net outflow of similar magnitude.

“What is left for the young girl or young gentleman of Haiti if 98 percent of their forest have been degraded and they have barren hills that cannot generate food anymore? What is left for them to do but to flee?” Thiaw questioned.

“Therefore, restoring land would reduce migration, it will keep people on the ground, help them generate their own income and live their own lives. They don’t want to leave their families. They migrate because they have no choice. So, restoring land is also bringing stability in our countries.”

Like Haiti, Grenada – another Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member state – has seen its share of land degradation.

As countries observed World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (WDCDD) on Monday, Jun. 17, Grenada’s Minister of Agriculture and Lands Yolande Bain-Horsford said while soils and land continue to play an integral role in the economic shift the island nation is experiencing today, these resources are under threat.

“The agricultural sector is a major contributor to national development through the provision of employment, household income, food and government revenues,” Bain-Horsford told IPS.

“As we boast of the importance of this sector to our economies, unfortunately we must face the harsh reality of the challenges facing the sector, which include land degradation, lack of sustainable farming practices, climatic variations and droughts.”

Bain-Horsford said Grenada has been spearheading the fight against desertification at local, regional and global levels.

Locally, the island nation has set ambitious targets to ensure it addresses and, in some cases, reverse the impacts of negative agricultural, construction, and other actions which lead to desertification.

Some of the actions taken include the Cabinet approving Grenada’s Voluntary Land Degradation Neutrality targets that should be achieved by 2030.

To achieve the targets, Grenada has agreed to;

  • increase the fertility and productivity of 580 hectares of cropland by 2030, 
  • transform 800 hectares of abandoned cropland into agroforestry by 2030, 
  • implement soil conservation measures on 120 hectares of land by 2030, 
  • the rehabilitation of 383 hectares of degraded land at Bellevue South in Carriacou by 2030, 
  • the rehabilitation of 100 hectares of degraded forests in Grenada and Carriacou by 2030, and
  • increase forest carbon stocks by 10 percent by 2030.

The island also completed and submitted its 2018 National Report on the state of land degradation, nationally linking it to gender and the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. 

But Thiaw said land restoration cannot be left in the hands of governments alone, explaining that it will not be sufficient.

With two billion hectares of land in need of restoration, the UNCCD head said the best solution would be for the governments to not only mobilise communities, but to mobilise private investments.

“As long as business does not see that investing on land and restoring land is a good business case, it will not happen,” Thiaw said.

“Governments will have to review some of the land tenure systems that they have. It may be just a concession saying if you restore this land, I will give you the concession over the land for the next 50 years or for the next 60 years. Then they can harvest and they will leave the land restored rather than leaving it barren.”

The government of Turkey is hosting three days of activities in observance of the 25th anniversary of the UNCCD and the WDCDD.

Turkey’s Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said countries are facing a silent danger that constantly grows and threatens the planet.

“This danger is indeed more dangerous and more insidious than wars,” he said. “This danger that takes our lands away, makes them unusable and risks our future is nothing but desertification.”

Pakdemirli said just as desertification is a disaster that threatens the entire world regardless of national borders, degraded and destroyed lands pose a direct threat to the lives of people living on land-based activities.

He said these social problems sometimes force people to migrate, especially in countries such as Africa that are most affected by the consequences of desertification.

“Nobody wants to leave the land where they were born, grew up, and felt belonging to. Migration is a way to addressing the most desperate and needy situations,” Pakdemirli said

“In such cases, children and women are viewed as the most vulnerable category of victims. Therefore, before it is too late, we should take necessary measures before lands lose their productivity and become completely uninhabitable.

“While taking these measures, we must act in unison and adopt the principle that all lands around the world should be protected,” Pakdemirli added.

The Importance of the Upcoming FAO Election

By Kip Tom
ROME, Jun 18 2019 – With each passing day, the world gets just a little smaller as the internet and cell phones bring our communities together, reveal our shared challenges, and lay bare our failures. As global citizens, we are all concerned about the growing number of hungry people around the world and the threats to food security. The simple fact is that more than 800 million people go hungry every day, and if that number shocks you, know that experts predict the number to grow significantly over the next ten years.

Kip Tom is U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.

The United States is aware of, and concerned about, this worsening crisis. Our country has long been the world leader in agricultural development thanks to our technical innovation, which has enabled us for many decades to be the leading donor to agricultural assistance programs in all corners of the globe. While those efforts have made a real difference, the need is far too great for one nation, even ours, to tackle. As the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and a lifelong participant in the agricultural industry as a family farmer and an agri-businessman, every day I see not only the stark need but also the great opportunity for the international community to make a profound impact on hunger and food security.

That’s one of the reasons the United States has worked closely with other nations for the last 75 years in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO is where the nations of the world come together to identify tools and practices to improve agricultural production, to facilitate trade, to enhance sustainability, and to extend knowledge in ways that can improve the health and wellbeing of families everywhere.

Like other important international venues, FAO is only as strong as its membership, and only as effective as its leaders. Over its history, FAO has enjoyed periods of leadership excellence, and also endured eras of waste, mismanagement, and disappointment. At this point in history, with the scale of need noted above, the world community needs an FAO that is effective, bold, and nimble. This month, FAO member states will gather in Rome to elect a new Director General, and in so doing will set the trajectory for the organization for the next four critical years.

I won’t exhaust you with a discussion of the details of UN elections, but I will note there are three candidates for the job, from China, France, and Georgia. And while is it not my intent to endorse any of the three, I believe it is vital to point to the attributes we feel are essential to the job.

Any new Director General must be committed to sustaining FAO’s reputation as the world knowledge center on agricultural development. He or she must work with a variety of partners, including governments, non-governmental organizations, academia and the private sector to support science-based innovations, emerging technologies, and the indispensable value of functioning markets.
The new Director General must be a strong administrator, dedicated to transparency, accountability, women’s empowerment, and neutrality between members. And, importantly, the new Director General must represent all member states and not use this position to further the interests of his or her own national government.

At the FAO Council in April, the three candidates provided members with statements outlining their skills and experiences. Those statements can be found on the FAO website. It is my hope and expectation that all member states will take the time to become familiar with these candidates in advance of the June 23 election and will pay particular attention to the issue of independence. That way, each member can exercise an informed vote, protected by the secret-ballot process that provides anonymity for all.

I ask that FAO member states come to this election with a single objective – to select as Director General the candidate most capable of leading this vital institution honestly, independently, transparently, and effectively. The world desperately needs an FAO that reflects those principles.

Kip Tom is U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, based in Rome.

UN’s Development Goals Remain Largely Elusive

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 18 2019 – The United Nations, in a new report to be released next month, has warned “there is no escaping the fact that the global landscape for the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has generally deteriorated since 2015, hindering the efforts of governments and other partners”

And the commitment to multilateral cooperation, so central to implementing major global agreements, is now under pressure, says the 35-page report, due to be released ahead of the upcoming high-level political forum (HLPF) of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), July 9-18.

The reasons for the roadblocks include a spreading economic recession, a decline in development aid, the diversion of funds into humanitarian emergencies, the widespread military conflicts, the growing economic losses from natural disasters, the downsizing of operations by cash-strapped UN agencies, the rise of right-wing governments and the increasing challenge to multilateralism, among others.

The study says “it is cause for great concern that the extreme poverty rate is projected to be 6 percent in 2030, missing the global target to eradicate extreme poverty while hunger is on the rise for the third consecutive year.”

At the same time, biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate with around one million species already facing extinction, many within decades while green-house gas emissions continue to increase.

Additionally, the required level of sustainable development financing and other means of implementation are not yet coming on stream and institutions are not strong or effective enough to respond adequately to these massive inter-related and cross-border challenges.

On gender empowerment, it says women represent less than 40 percent of those employed, occupy only about a quarter of managerial positions in the world, and (in a limited set of countries with available data) face a gender pay gap of 12 percent.

About a fifth of those aged 15 to 49 experienced physical or sexual-partner violence in the last 12 months.

“There is simply no way that we can achieve the 17 SDGs without achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls,” the study declares.

Asked for his reaction, Jens Martens, director of the Global Policy Forum and coordinator of the Civil Society Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda, told IPS: “The new UN report is a wake- up call to governments—and it clearly shows that most governments have failed to turn the proclaimed transformational vision of the 2030 Agenda into real policies”.

“We agree with the assessment that the commitment to multilateral cooperation is now under pressure. Even worse, national chauvinism and authoritarianism are on the rise in a growing number of countries,” he added.

But despite these gloomy perspectives, there are signs of change, said Martens.

In response to the failure or inaction of governments, world-wide social movements have recently emerged, mainly with young people and women in the lead.

The UN report clearly shows, that structural transformation is more needed than ever before. It requires strengthening bottom-up governance and governance coherence.

At global level, he said, the upcoming review of the High-Level Political Forum next month should be used to overcoming the weakness of this body and transform it to a Sustainable Development Council.

Martens said enhancing governance coherence requires to give those institutions which are responsible for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, the necessary financial resources and effective political and legal instruments.

At global level this requires to changing the recent course of relying on non-binding instruments and corporate voluntarism.

The SDG Summit, scheduled to take place at the United Nations September 24-25, and equally important, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in 2020, will provide important opportunities to translate the calls of the emerging global movements for social and environmental justice into political steps towards a new democratic multilateralism, he added.

Chee Yoke Ling, Director of the Third World Network, told IPS the world is very far from meeting the sustainable development commitments, including the targets set under the Convention on Biological Diversity for the period 2011 to 2020, the Aichi Targets, that are integral to the SDGs.

There are promises of implementation, especially new and additional funding, that is a legal obligation of developed countries in various multilateral treaties, she added.

“The global cooperation forged in the 1992 Rio treaties on biodiversity, climate and combatting desertification were rooted in the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities between developing and developed countries.”

She said 27 years later, multilateralism is under attack, with an erosion of all these principles and commitments.

“The Trump Administration is pushing the world into economic protectionism, while the resources of developing countries are now facing a new level of siphoning through digitalization,” she added.

From personal data to gene sequence information, a handful of transnational corporations once again seek aggressively to claim private property rights for profit, she warned.

Meanwhile, on relatively positive note, the report points out that progress is being made and some favorable trends on SDG implementation are evident.

Extreme poverty and child mortality rates continue to fall. Progress is being made against diseases such as hepatitis, where the incidence of new chronic HBV infections has been reduced considerably.

Certain targets regarding gender equality are seeing progress such as implementing gender responsive budgeting. Electricity access in the poorest countries has begun to increase.

Globally, labour productivity has increased and unemployment is back to pre-financial crisis levels. The proportion of the urban population living in slums is falling.

Still progress has been slow on many SDGs, “that the most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most, and that the global response thus far has not been ambitious enough.”

Roberto Bissio, coordinator of Social Watch, told IPS the UN report does not mention that, according to its estimates, poverty is actually increasing in Sub-Saharan Africa, where nine out of ten people in extreme poverty will be living in 2030.

A closer look at the income growth of the bottom 40 and the national average, shows that for more than one third of the countries with data, the difference was of less than 0.5 percent, which rounds up to zero, considering the margin error of these measures.

Further, in one third of the countries, income of the bottom 40 actually decreased, making the poor poorer. In many of them the national average decreased even more, said Bissio.

“Is it fair to count those countries where the income of the poor was reduced less than the national average as meeting the promise of target 10.1 to “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average”?, he asked.

“While the UN Secretariat is to be commended for looking at the issues that really matter (like the scandalous growth of the income of the top 1 percent), the UN bodies that form the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) should take due note and re-formulate the framework they concocted in a way that is actually useful”.

The 2030 Agenda is explicit in mentioning that all countries should take action towards sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), “with developed countries taking the lead”.

The Progress Report quotes UNEP’s “Global Resources Outlook 2019” per capita average global figure of 12 tons of resources extracted per person in 2015 (up from 8 tonnes in 1990), but it fails to mention what the Outlook says in the following paragraph: “High-income countries consume 27 tons of materials (per capita) on average, which is 60 per cent higher than the upper-middle countries and more than thirteen times the level of the low-income group (at two tons per capita).”

By only providing global average figures, the Progress Report hides the responsibility of developed countries in current global un-sustainability instead of encouraging them to take the lead.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org

Financialization Promotes Dangerous Speculation

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Michael Lim Mah Hui
KUALA LUMPUR and PENANG, Jun 18 2019 – Financialization has involved considerable ‘innovation’, often of opaque, complex and poorly understood financial instruments. These instruments typically have large debt components involving leveraging, deepening connections across markets and borders.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Three important financial innovations that have changed the financial landscape — by promoting speculation, amplifying risks, and increasing economies’ vulnerability to financial vicissitudes — are securitization of debt, derivatives and the repo market.

Debt securitization
Long-term bank loans were illiquid. Loans were booked and sat on bank balance sheets until maturity. With securitization, illiquid loans could be packaged as securities to be sold and traded in secondary markets. Examples include collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) containing packages of house mortgage loans, divided into tranches with different credit ratings.

Tranches define priority of payment of both principal and interest from underlying loans, involving different interest rates. The AAA rated tranche has priority of payment over mezzanine and junior tranches, offering a lower interest rate reflecting its safer profile.

The originating bank sells these CDOs to a ‘special purpose vehicle’ (SPV) that is not treated as a bank subsidiary. It is thus treated as an off-balance sheet transaction. The SPV sells the securitized debt to investors who receive cash flows from the interest due to the underlying loans.

This was originally hailed as a brilliant financial innovation as US Fed chair Alan Greenspan believed that CDOs transferred risk from banks to investors able and willing to take it on. But securitization not only increased systemic risks, but also did not reduce risk to the originating banks who had sold off the loans.

Derivatives
Derivatives are financial products meant for hedging risks, but often used for speculation. Investors can also secure additional leverage via derivative markets. Examples of derivatives include options, futures, swaps and structured products such as credit default swaps (CDSs).

Michael Lim Mah Hui

Before the 2008 global financial crisis, CDSs were used to provide ‘insurance’ on CDOs. CDS issuers guaranteed the financial viability of CDOs, for a premium. Issuing CDSs was seen as a risk-free way to capture premia, by assuming that the asset prices underlying the CDO would always rise; CDOs could thus continue generating cash flows even when subprime borrowers defaulted.

Such expectations of risk-free financial gain inspired the issue of various CDSs, e.g., AIG issued half a trillion dollars worth. Regulators sanctioned such instruments by allowing issuers to use regulatory loopholes exempting them from the ‘normal’ capital requirements.

The US subprime mortgage crisis, which started in 2007, quickly spread, via related CDOs and CDSs, to much of the rest of the financial system and across national borders, with repercussions for the real economy worldwide, not least through trade and other policy responses, including protectionism.

Securities financing transactions (‘repos’)
‘Repo’ is short for ‘repurchase agreement’, also known as a securities financing transaction. Repos and reverse repos are simply collateralized borrowing and lending respectively. The borrower sells a security to a lender, agreeing to repurchase it at an agreed future date and price, i.e., upon maturity of the repo loan.

Repos play two critical functions. First, as an asset-liability management tool for banks. To match their assets and liabilities, banks resort to lending or borrowing, collateralized with securities (normally government securities) bought and sold.

Second, repo markets have been used to cheaply fund financial institutions’ securities portfolios, with repos now accounting for large shares of banks’ balance sheets. Collateralized loans are safer, and hence cheaper to finance than uncollateralized ones.

The lenders receive returns on repo loans from borrowers with the securities marked to market daily. With prices fluctuating, borrowers have to provide additional security when prices fall, while lenders have to return excess security if prices rise.

With financial innovation such as ‘shorting’ — i.e., borrowing securities to sell for profit when their prices fall — repo markets have increased opportunities for profitable speculation on changes in the market prices of securities.

Risks and rewards have increased as collateral is rehypothecated, i.e., used by lenders for their own purposes. Such leveraging allows lenders to become borrowers. Mark-to-market practices, shorting and rehypothecation thus increase risks for the financial system.

More of the same
While securitization creates new asset classes for sale to varied investors with different risk preferences, derivatives allow investors to hedge, thus increasing their exposure to securities. Repos allow borrowers to maximize leverage at low cost for shorting.

These transformations generate more fragility in transnational finance, vulnerable to large asset price swings, and thus to financial instability. The 2008 global financial crisis started in securities markets, with CDOs involving subprime mortgages, and was transmitted via repo markets to other interconnected financial institutions.

CDO losses accounted for nearly half the total losses sustained by financial institutions between 2007 and early 2009, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a run on global repo markets that triggered banking and European sovereign debt crises.

Financial regulators recognize the systemic significance of these financial developments. Although the Financial Stability Board, created in the wake of the 2008 crisis, identified securitization and repo markets as critical priorities for shadow banking reform, securitization is back on financial development agendas, especially for developing countries.

There’s No Continent, No Country Not Impacted by Land Degradation

On all continents you have the issue of land degradation, and it requires governments, land users and all different communities in a country to be part of the solution. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah /IPS

By Desmond Brown
ANKARA, Jun 17 2019 – The coming decades will be crucial in shaping and implementing a transformative land agenda, according to a scientist at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) framework for Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN).

UNCCD-Science Policy Interface co-chair Dr. Mariam Akhtar-Schuster, who spoke with IPS ahead of the start of activities to mark World Day to Combat Desertification (WDCD) on Monday, Jun. 17, said this was one of the key messages emerging for policy- and other decision-makers.

This comes after the dire warnings in recent publications on desertification, land degradation and drought of the Global Land OutlookIntergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration, World Atlas of Desertification, and IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

“The main message is: things are not improving. The issue of desertification is becoming clearer to different communities, but we now have to start implementing the knowledge that we already have to combat desertification,” Akhtar-Schuster told IPS.

“It’s not only technology that we have to implement, it is the policy level that has to develop a governance structure which supports sustainable land management practices.”

IPBES Science and Policy for People and Nature found that the biosphere and atmosphere, upon which humanity as a whole depends, have been deeply reconfigured by people.

The report shows that 75 percent of the land area is very significantly altered, 66 percent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and 85 percent of the wetland area has been lost.

“There are of course areas which are harder hit; these are areas which are experiencing extreme drought which makes it even more difficult to sustainably use land resources,” Akhtar-Schuster said.

“On all continents you have the issue of land degradation, so there’s no continent, there’s no country which can just lean back and say this is not our issue. Everybody has to do something.”

Akhtar-Schuster said there is sufficient knowledge out there which already can support evidence-based implementation of technology so that at least land degradation does not continue.

While the information is available, Akhtar-Schuster said it requires governments, land users and all different communities in a country to be part of the solution.

“There is no top-down approach. You need the people on the ground, you need the people who generate knowledge and you need the policy makers to implement that knowledge. You need everybody,” the UNCCD-SPI co-chair said.

“Nobody in a community, in a social environment, can say this has nothing to do with me. We are all consumers of products which are generated from land. So, we in our daily lives – the way we eat, the way we dress ourselves – whatever we do has something to do with land, and we can take decisions which are more friendly to land than what we’re doing at the moment.”

UNCCD-Science Policy Interface co-chair Dr. Mariam Akhtar-Schuster says things are not improving and that the issue of desertification is becoming clearer to different communities. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

UNCCD Lead Scientist Dr. Barron Joseph Orr said it’s important to note that while the four major assessments were all done for different reasons, using different methodologies, they are all converging on very similar messages.

He said while in the past land degradation was seen as a problem in a place where there is overgrazing or poor management practices on agricultural lands, the reality is, that’s not influencing the change in land.

“What’s very different from the past is the rate of land transformation. The pace of that change is considerable, both in terms of conversion to farm land and conversion to built-up areas,” Orr told IPS.

“We’ve got a situation where 75 percent of the land surface of the earth has been transformed, and the demand for food is only going to go up between now and 2050 with the population growth expected to increase one to two billion people.”

That’s a significant jump. Our demand for energy that’s drawn from land, bio energy, or the need for land for solar and wind energy is only going to increase but these studies are making it clear that we are not optimising our use,” Orr added.

Like Akhtar-Schuster, Orr said it’s now public knowledge what tools are necessary to sustainably manage agricultural land, and to restore or rehabilitate land that has been degraded.

“We need better incentives for our farmers and ranchers to do the right thing on the landscape, we have to have stronger safeguards for tenures so that future generations can continue that stewardship of the land,” he added.

The international community adopted the Convention to Combat Desertification in Paris on Jun. 17, 1994.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Convention and the World Day to Combat Desertification in 2019 (#2019WDCD), UNCCD will look back and celebrate the 25 years of progress made by countries on sustainable land management.

At the same time, they will look at the broad picture of the next 25 years where they will achieve land degradation neutrality.

The anniversary campaign runs under the slogan “Let’s grow the future together,” with the global observance of WDCD and the 25th anniversary of the Convention on Jun. 17, hosted by the government of Turkey.

Air Pollution Ranked as Biggest Environmental Threat to Human Health

By Emily Thampoe
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 17 2019 – In a world that is becoming more and more industrial by the day, air pollution appears to be on the rise.

While there have been efforts in major cities to combat the grave effects that pollution can have on the overall health of its citizens, there is still more progress to be made.

Karen Beck Pooley, a Professor of Practice of Political Science and the Director of Lehigh University’s Environmental Policy Design program, told IPS: “One thing that we’ve always known but we haven’t paid as much attention to until fairly recently is the degree to which people’s immediate environments affect their health.”

The importance of recognising air pollution as a prevalent problem was emphasised by the theme of the recent 2019 World Environment Day, with official celebrations held in this year’s host country, China.

Additionally, reports such as the one released recently in Sarajevo, and titled “Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans”, highlighted the adverse effects on the public.

Talking on the implications of air pollution, Catriona Brady, Head of the World Green Building Council’s Better Places for People campaign told IPS that, “air pollution is considered to be the biggest environmental threat to human health today”.

“Research shows that over 90% of people across the world are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution, which includes both the population in big cities and small communities. The effect this pollution has on citizen health is quite horrifying – studies suggest that almost every organ of the human body can be affected by toxic airborne particles, and this is resulting in an approximate 7 million premature deaths each year.”

Pooley notes that the actual planning of cities can have an impact on the amount of pollution produced, saying that, “The way we build our cities and the way people organise their lives in them, affect how much we need car travel or truck traffic. Or environmentally dirty things that we need like trash facilities and where these things are located and who’s living in the midst of the effects of those things.”

While there are positive plans, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to phase out coal usage in his country by 2030 or Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to ban single-use plastics from being used in the country’s national parks, there are also efforts being made on both smaller and larger scales worldwide.

Pooley observes that, ““At the moment, most of the environmental conservation work and attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and things of that nature are coming from cities.”

Brady says that her organisation, “has embarked on a global ‘Air Quality in Built Environment’ campaign, in partnership with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

“With this work we’ve been raising awareness about the role of buildings and cities in generating emissions and air pollution, both inside and outside of buildings, and highlighting strategies that can be valuable to mitigate these. Step one is monitoring – as we can’t reduce what we can’t measure.”

She also said: “We’re advocating for the roll out of air quality monitors to provide detailed data on emissions across the world. With this data we’re equipped with the necessary information to lobby our policy makers to make changes needed to clean up our energy grid, buildings, and air quality.”

Pooley states that citizens can make small changes that will be helpful as well. “Cutting down on car travel can be a big help, because so much pollution comes from cars. So, the more places that are walkable and bikeable and the more trips that are made by something other than cars, the less pollution we’ll have.”

Day to day actions can be quite helpful but having policies put in place may also help deter the harmful effects that poor air quality is having on the lives of those who inhabit such areas.

Brady suggests something similar, while also maintaining that citizen action is important. Policy initiatives – such as the recent London Ultra Low Emission Zone – can help catalyse action towards clean air.

Policy enforcement around energy generation, building energy efficiency, construction practices, transport, waste and many other factors are vital to preserve citizen health.

“But the role of the citizen is also important; reducing the emissions from our lifestyle in terms of energy consumption and choices, diet, and transport methods are all achievable for the individual,” said Brady.

“And if you’re worried about being exposed to pollution by cycling or walking to work, then it’s worth knowing that you’re generally exposed to far higher levels of pollutants in a car in traffic or in an underground system!”

With world leaders proposing plans to help deter ruinous environmental effects and with cities implementing new policies to help out, it is clear that progress is being made in helping to create cleaner environments to live in.

South Africa’s First Carbon Farm

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is a small, succulent tree that is native to the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. It can easily be grown from cuttings, which can survive even in dry conditions (Photos by Tim Christophersen / Florian Fussstetter)

By Tim Christophersen
NAIROBI, Jun 17 2019 – Land restoration could attract large private investments in the fight against climate change over the coming decades, if Governments and the United Nations put the right incentives and conditions in place.

When the goats on his farm had nothing more to eat, because the soil was eroded and most of the vegetation destroyed, South African farmer Pieter Kruger had to make one of the toughest decisions of his life. “I have always been a farmer,” he says, “but that moment in 2007, I knew that I could not go on. There was no more water. Zandvlakte is the last farm in our valley in the Bavianskloof, and our river had run dry before it reached my farm.” Pieter reluctantly gave up goat farming, and embarked on the Working for Water programme, a government pilot effort to restore degraded watersheds.

Over the next three years, he and a team of over 100 workers planted 1,500 hectares of his farm with millions of cuttings of an indigenous succulent tree, the spekboom (Portulacaria afra) which can grow well even in dry conditions.

“I have never regretted that decision”, says Pieter Kruger, “the trees are now well established, and in the big flood this year, we managed to keep runoff of water to penetrate the soil, improving ground water levels, instead of washing away our topsoil into the river.”

Tim Christophersen

Spekboom forests can act as ‘natural water dams’: in mountainous areas, the trees can grow even on steep slopes, and when rare rainfall occurs in the semi-arid regions of the Eastern Cape, they suck up all the moisture quickly, and can store if for months. Spekboom forests can serve as grazing and browsing areas of last resort for wildlife and livestock, even when all else has withered in a drought.

Sekboom trees also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere faster than most other trees in dry conditions. However, farmers are usually not paid for carbon storage, water security and other essential ecosystem services which well-managed land provides for downstream water users, and for the global community. That could change, however, if Governments and the global community set the right conditions.

“Spekboom is an amazing plant. It can take root and regrow, just from simple cuttings from existing trees. It can quickly reform the soil because it continuously sheds a lot of leaves, which help to build up soil organic carbon”, explains ecologist Anthony Mills, who has published extensively on the sub-tropical thicket ecosystem of South Africa, one of the country’s lesser known plant biomes.

Spekboom is the dominant tree of the thicket ecosystem, a complex forest which creates its own microclimate. Thicket forests used to cover up to 5 million hectares across the dry areas of the Eastern Cape, until about 200 years ago, when massive overgrazing by goats and sheep started, and turned much of this ecosystem into a mere shadow of its former biodiversity and natural splendour.

“You can drive for four hours across degraded areas, which look like a savannah woodland, because all you see are some of the surviving jacket plum trees (Pappea capensis), which were originally part of the thicket ecosystem. The richness of this ecosystem is almost all gone today, but we could bring it back,” says Mills. “Today, more than 1.3 million hectares of severely degraded thicket landscapes in the Eastern Cape Province are ready to be restored to their former ecological functionality, which can also increase their productive use for livestock,” he adds.

Scientists from Stellenbosch University came upon the remarkable ability of spekboom to regrow in degraded areas almost by chance. In 1976, a farmer in the Kromport area of the Eastern Cape had planted cuttings of the sturdy tree on a steep slope of about 200 by 100 metres behind a barn on his farm, because he was trying to find a way to stop annual floods that were threatening his livestock. He soon discovered that not only did spekboom rapidly establish itself in the degraded soil, but it also stopped the floods very quickly after it had been planted.

In the foreground, one of the 330 demonstration plots for thicket replanting with spekboom (Portulacaria afra) across Eastern Cape. In the background, the few remaining jacket plum trees (Pappea capensis) on degraded land are an indicator of the former spekboom thicket ecosystem, which could be replanted (Photo by Florian Fussstetter)

“Some of the plants in this area are now over 40 years old, and we can see some of the original thicket ecosystem reforming. Other plants are joining, and birds and wildlife are returning,” says Mills. Although the area is rather small, it has yielded valuable scientific information, including on the amount of carbon stored below ground, in the roots of the spekboom plant and in the soil.

The discovery prompted the South African Government in 2007 to start what is arguably the largest ecological experiment in the world: they planted 330 plots of half a hectare (50 by 50 metres) with spekboom across the entire degraded area, almost 1,000 kilometres. Ten years after the planting, the plots have yielded promising results. In almost all the plots which were planted in degraded thicket and which had their fences maintained, the replanting with cuttings from spekboom has been successful, under a variety of conditions and planting techniques. The most important factor, according to scientists from Stellenbosch University and Nelson Mandela University, is that the grazing pressure from goats must be reduced for at least five years through fencing, and the cuttings need to be planted well and deep enough in the soil.

“By finding a way to boost agricultural productivity, restore a lost ecosystem and store carbon quickly and at scale, we would have a real win-win for farmers and for the global community”, says Tim Christophersen, Coordinator of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch at UN Environment.

The goal is to restore an area of thicket of over one million hectares, almost 200 times the size of Manhattan. There is potential to plant more than 2 billion tree cuttings across this immense landscape, providing work and income for thousands of people, for several years.

“This might sound daunting but given the opportunities for combining the real, long-term restoration of these degraded lands with diversified economic benefits to the local economy, the potential is amazing,” says Tim Christophersen.

The South African Government sees thicket restoration as one of the low-hanging fruits for the achievement of national climate and biodiversity goals, and recognizes that private investments are key. “We planted the pilot plots back in 2007 to attract private investors, by demonstrating that this can work,” says Dr. Christo Marais, Chief Director at the Department of Environmental Affairs, which runs the Working for Water programme. “We have studied this thoroughly, and we believe there are big opportunities for ecosystem restoration investments across South Africa.”

One of the next steps in scaling up the restoration could be to establish carbon and livestock farms, where several thousand hectares can be replanted with spekboom, and where income from carbon is combined with other income streams and economic activity.

“Farmers like to look over the fence, and see what their neighbour is doing,” says Pieter Kruger. “Having big demonstration plots on existing farms is important to spread the word that becoming a carbon farmer can pay off, both for restoring the land, and for making a decent return from the land,” he adds.

Even though Pieter has not yet received any compensation for the carbon he has sequestered on his farm, he remains optimistic. “We never give up,” he says. His Zandvlakte farm lies in the Bavianskloof, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, one of the most remote and beautiful areas of South Africa. Pieter and his family have also branched out into eco-tourism, where visitors can experience the success of Pieter’s shift from conventional farming to restoring his land first-hand.

“The global carbon market, including for carbon offsets, for example from the aviation industry, is starting to boom again, after several years of uncertainty. If current trends persist, carbon credits might provide some income for farmers like Pieter,” says Mills. Carbon credits are compensations which nations, companies, or individuals, can buy to offset part of their emissions which cannot be otherwise reduced. Offsets are not a replacement for ambitious climate mitigation action across all sectors. They can only provide a temporary solution while we deeply de-carbonize our economies. Ecosystem carbon credits often also have many other benefits beyond carbon, such as biodiversity, water, or better income options for farmers.

The carbon market is highly complex and volatile, and farmers should not only rely on carbon for their income. “We must try to blend different income streams for farmers, so that carbon credits are only one of several revenue streams. At the same time, the restoration of degraded lands will increase the value of the farmland in the long run and will improve resilience and ecosystem services for local communities, and for entire nations”, says Tim Christophersen. “We are running out of time for climate and biodiversity action, and large-scale opportunities like the thicket restoration in South Africa must be urgently explored. We would like to support the Government of South Africa and other partners, like Living Lands and Commonland, to realize the potential of the Eastern Cape thicket restoration, as we are moving into the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.”

More information:

South Africa Working for Water Programme:
https://www.environment.gov.za/projectsprogrammes/wfw

UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030:
https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/new-un-decade-ecosystem-restoration-offers-unparalleled-opportunity

South African Government studies on ecosystem carbon sequestration:

Contact: Tim.Christophersen@un.org